The Least Amount of Misery



The courses are talking to one another now. This happens a couple of times each semester. Indeed, I've blogged on this odd phenomenon before (Pagan Ping-Pong). Some author I am teaching in one class weirdly starts talking to another author I'm teaching in a different class. In the sophomore honors section, for example, we just started in on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, and in Humanities we are beginning Seneca's essay On Anger. Freud is explaining that organized society is merely a massively elaborate containment mechanism for foiling our infantile desire to have everything we want: our hot wishes, our violent demands, and even our irrational yearning to be the darling of the universe as we once were when our mothers gazed adoringly down upon us.

Seneca, of course, recognizes how nettlesome our desires can be. He too has a "reality principle" that foils our irrational longings. His solution is to always expect the worst. Then we won't lose our temper when the worst occurs. I admire the Stoics but find it hard to follow their advice. They argue you should ask yourself only one question about anything that’s vexing you: is this something within my power to change? If it is, then change it. If it’s not, stop worrying.

For the past year I have been chairing a committee to revise the core, and I am continually vexed by my own inability to anticipate snafus, by the sheer work it takes to cause something this big to happen. I try to take a stoical approach, try to tell myself that what can go wrong usually will, but I am still filled with exasperation when it does. I don’t know if I am the kind of person who can ever be satisfied doing this kind of curricular work. I also know I lack what it takes to be a stoic.

I'm much more likely to view frustration in Freudian terms. Suffering is just part of life (or as Schopenhauer put it "happiness is simply the least amount of misery"). There simply is no arrangement of life that brings permanent contentment. I know much (if not all) of contemporary psychology has jettisoned Freud’s specific concepts (Oedipus complex, penis envy, even to a great degree the notion of repression). But his conceptual framework still resonates even if he got many of the details wrong. In a sense, Freud is a singer of the self like Whitman. If we think of a poet as someone who generates new language to represent reality, then Freud was a great poet. He reshaped the way we talk about the self. If many of his ideas have lost currency, the poetry remains.

In the broadest sense, Freud suggests the “self” houses conflicting desires that are not wholly conscious. Such a view is to some extent a blow to our ego-centrism. We like to think we are in conscious charge of ourselves. But people do yearn for love and closeness, not altogether rational desires given that the love we do find is never as satisfying as we imagine it will be. Human beings also take perverse pleasure in destruction. The keen willingness of generation after generation of young men to march off to war and murder complete strangers cannot be entirely chalked up to civic pride or patriotism. At some base level we long to destroy, and society both contains and valorizes this impulse.

Freud was so pessimistic about humanity’s ability to overcome the eternal war between the deep-seated instincts of Eros and Thanatos. But he did believe that it’s better to know this about ourselves. It was his working premise that making our unconscious drives more conscious was a way of dealing with them when they weren’t appropriate. Is this a bleak view or realistic? I think the latter.

Freud wrote off philosophies like Stoicism as just a variant form of ascetic quietism, the attempt to master our desires by denying them. He called art a distracting sublimation, but I find that it makes a much more effective tonic for my nerves than Senecan stoicism. Frank Zappa once said that "music is the only religion that delivers" and I believe him. Great music has the power to dispel gloom without denying gloom exists.

While driving in to work today, I was moderating that debate between Freud and Seneca in my head. And then Louis Armstrong's 1929 recording of Mahogany Hall Stomp shuffled to the top of my I-pod. I just sat spellbound and listened. About two minutes into the piece, he blows a single note so filled with purity and joy that it never fails to make me--if only for a few seconds-- immensely glad to be alive and living in a universe that includes something as sublime as Louis playing his cornet.

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